GAINESVILLE, Fla. — This year’s Florida-South Carolina game has been circled on calendars for months — 11 to be exact.
That’s when the Gamecocks hired Will Muschamp as their new head coach, just one year removed from his firing at UF. He’ll be up against 30 of his former players Saturday, including seven seniors playing for the final time at home.
This week they admitted it will be awkward crossing paths with Muschamp, who said he harbors no hard feelings toward the Gators. But this won’t the first time UF players have competed against their ex-coach at South Carolina.
In 2005, eight seniors faced the coach who recruited them to Florida — Steve Spurrier. It was his first year with the Gamecocks after two seasons in the NFL and a historic 12-year run at UF from 1990-2001.
The Gators also boasted a new coach in Urban Meyer, who had them in contention for a trip to the SEC Championship Game.
“In ’05 we were in a similar position the Gators are this year. It’s very eerie how history repeats itself,” said former UF center Mike Degory, one of the eight remaining members from Spurrier’s last signing class in 2001.
Degory tied the school record for most consecutive starts (50) at Florida. As a senior, he was a first-team All-American and a finalist for the Rimington Trophy.
Spurrier saw that kind of potential in Degory as a recruit.
“There was a lot of honesty from him about what he thought of me and the opportunity I would have,” Degory said. “I remember in his in-home visit and he was just such an enigma. Witty, funny, a lot of charisma and moxie. He was a true rebel but also a football genius. He was a visionary for the game.”
Degory said he never felt betrayed when Spurrier left for the Washington Redskins. And as he eyed a return to the college ranks, his former players at Florida had their fingers crossed.
“When we were trying to replace (Ron) Zook, all the seniors that had been recruited by Spurrier hoped we would come back. But it didn’t work out like that,” Degory said. “We obviously had a relationship from that recruiting process and the whole year we spent with Spurrier, so we did feel a sense of loyalty to him.”
But that went out the window on Nov. 12, 2005. The No. 12 Gators were one win away from their first division title in five years. The only thing standing in their way was Spurrier and the unranked Gamecocks.
“I remember feeling in the locker room that it would be a statement for us as a senior class to beat our ex-coach and put Florida back into Atlanta. The last time we were there was with him,” Degory said. “I knew he wanted to play spoiler.”
But Spurrier insists, both back then and now, that his focus wasn’t on Florida going into the game.
“What people don’t understand is that when you’re a coach, you worry about your team,” Spurrier told SEC Country. “You’re not thinking about the opponent or the other players or anything else. It’s about your guys and trying to get them to play well.”
And that’s just what Spurrier did. The Gamecocks jumped out to a 20-3 lead and the offense moved the ball methodically in the first half.
“We knew that the guy could get hot, or at least I did, because he’s really streaky when it comes to play-calling,” Degory said. “He has tricks up his sleeve. I was expecting to see a little Spurrier magic and it happened early.
“The game kind of felt out of reach from the get-go because of the presence and power of Spurrier. I think he wanted to show everybody he still was the Head Ball Coach.”
The Gators tried to mount a second-half comeback, but a late touchdown by South Carolina in the third quarter put the game out of reach. The Gamecocks held on for a 30-22 upset, their first time defeating UF in decades.
“It wasn’t a pretty game, but it was a big one for South Carolina,” Spurrier said. “We hadn’t beat Florida since 1939, and that was our fifth straight SEC win. We only completed 7 passes in that game, had four rushing touchdowns. But things went our way somehow or another.”
Spurrier didn’t have many visor throws that day, and Degory recalls the jubilation from him throughout the game. It was a bittersweet sight for the fifth-year senior.
“I remember him being such a lively sideline character,” Degory said. “He had some masterful calls and just picked our defense apart. I kind of reminisced to when he was on our sideline. It was one of the games where you just felt overcoached.”
Degory and Spurrier didn’t connect after the game, but they ran into each other on the recruiting trail a few years later. Degory coached under Zook at Illinois and then spent three seasons at New Mexico with former Florida assistant Mike Locksley.
Degory is now the offensive line coach at Viera High School in Melbourne, Fla.
“I’ve seen Coach Spurrier maybe three or four times since that ’05 game,” Degory said. “There was one time we were both waiting for a hotel and we spent 20 minutes together just talking about old times.
“I was only with him for one year, but I always consider myself a Spurrier guy. I’m proud to say I was recruited by him. Our ’01 class wanted to leave a legacy and we felt we helped put the program back in the right direction.”